Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, August 28, 2020

First-time homebuyer shatters myths, barriers

Alexis Willis enjoys the porch swing at her new home with her daughters, 12-year-old Boom and 2-year-old Riley. - Photograph provided

Alexis Willis woke up one morning during Hamilton County’s COVID-19 quarantine and said, “I want to own a home in 60 days.”

To casual observers, the odds might have appeared to be stacked against her. Willis, 37, had never owned a home. Moreover, she had worked for nonprofits for over a decade. While this had been a labor of love, Willis had been unable to build personal wealth.

Then there were the noisemakers outside her room. As Willis gazed at the walls that crowded her bed, her toddler, Bebe, was already thumping through the 700 square feet that comprised their downtown Chattanooga apartment. Her older daughter, 12-year-old Boom, was likely close behind, trying to corral the tiny bundle of energy.

Willis took stock of her situation. She didn’t have equity in a home to apply to a new house, she had only recently repaired a dip in her credit score and she was a single mother living on a tight fixed income.

Willis had turned these obstacles over and over in her mind countless times, and had always yielded to the fear that welled up inside her when she thought about becoming a homeowner.

“I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to afford it,” Willis explains. “I would look at houses and then say, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’”

Potential lenders had reinforced Willis’ perceptions. When she did stir up the courage to look into buying a home, she says loan officers would balk at her work history and income, claiming the former was inconsistent and the latter was too low.

Being happy with her lifestyle made it easy for Willis to shake off these rejections and return to her apartment. “My rent was great and downtown was my backyard,” she says. “I walked everywhere, went to concerts and ate at local restaurants. I was loving it.”

But Willis says comforting memories of growing up in the homes her family owned through the years – including a house on a five-acre sprawl in Chatsworth, Georgia – had always stayed with her.

So, upon waking up and contemplating another day of being quarantined with her daughters in 700 square foot space, Willis decided she was ready to make a bold move. “They needed their own space and I needed a house,” she says.

Help from a guiding hand

Willis did not enter the fray unprepared. Rather, she’d already done the work that would enable her to become a homeowner.

Some of these labors had been tangible; through mindful budgeting, Willis had repaired her credit and even saved money. She also had two years as the director of small business and entrepreneurship at the INCubator under her belt. Having a stable position improved her standing considerably.

But a lot of the work was psychological; instead of telling herself she didn’t have the means to own a home, Willis was looking at her income and budget and saying, “I can do this.”

To reach this place of confidence, Willis had employed the services of a financial coach.

Frenise Mann of Thrivent was also a friend and familiar with Willis’ issues – including the credit problems that cropped up when Bebe was born 12 weeks early and Willis lapsed on her bills.

But as an African American who’s passionate about teaching her culture how to rise out of debt and build wealth, Mann saw opportunities where Willis saw obstacles.

“I’m an educator. I want to teach you the basics,” Mann says. “You don’t have to have a million dollars to be able to sit in front of me, I want to help you earn the million dollars. I’m not afraid of the hard work.”

With respect to Willis, Mann had a lot of hard work ahead of her – beginning with reeling in her client’s spending. After analyzing two months’ worth of Willis’ bank statements, Mann asked her friend if she was aware she’d spent $1,000 on eating out.

“I was like, ‘What?’” Willis says, her wide eyes and elevated voice replicating her surprise. “Then she told me I had spent $500 on personal care. I told her I had to get my nails done!”

Mann assured Willis there’s nothing wrong with eating at a restaurant or getting her nails done, but if she wanted to gain control over her budget and achieve her goals, she was going to have to prioritize other things.

“It’s not easy to say, ‘I won’t spend more than $400 on groceries because I need to save for a downpayment on a house,’” Mann says. “Or, ‘I normally get my hair and nails done, but for the next 60 days, I’m not going to do that.’ But that’s what you have to do to reach a goal.”

Willis agreed and bit the bullet. “Frenise had a different eye. I’m a visionary; I say, ‘I want this, this and this.’ She’s more analytical and says, ‘If you want this, this and this, then the first thing you have to do is this.’”

Like a fitness coach who puts together a plan to help a client lose weight and become physically fit, Mann developed a detailed budget that assigned every dollar Willis made to a specific item. This included $400 a month for groceries, money for an emergency fund, kid costs and more – but nothing for getting her nails done.

Mann kept these goals in front of Willis as she deployed a plan to reduce her friend’s debt and repair her credit. Although Willis says the process was a slow grind, she stuck to the plan, and in time, her debt-to-income ratio hit the sweet spot that would make her a viable candidate for a home loan.

Willis is now an advocate for hiring a financial coach – even when a person believes they either don’t make enough money or are too deep in the hole to afford one. “Frenise transformed my thinking,” she raves. “She helped me to realize I had more income than I thought I had, and that I could afford more than I thought I could if I paid down my debt.

“I recommend you surround yourself with people who hold you accountable. It’s not confining; it’s empowering.”

Enter the Realtor

Although Willis had positioned herself to be able to buy a house, as she launched her search, she faced new challenges.

The most daunting was the limited inventory in the greater Chattanooga market, which had turned every listed property into a battleground in which buyers were forced to enter a bidding war against multiple opponents.

To be competitive, many buyers were bidding well above the seller’s asking price, which posed a problem for Willis, who was not only living on a tight budget but was also going to try to buy a house on one.

Although Willis wanted to stay downtown, house hunting excursions in the Highland Park and Glenwood neighborhoods led her to rethink where she might be open to living.

“I don’t know what those people do for a living to be able to afford these homes, but they can’t be working for a nonprofit,” Willis quips.

With Mann’s help, Willis had identified a ceiling of $215,000 for a house. To find such a property, she knew she would need to employ the services of another professional – a Realtor.

Once again, Willis looked no further than her circle of friends, where she found Aubrey LaRue, an agent with Keller Williams. Like Mann, LaRue saw opportunities where Willis saw obstacles.

Although under 30, LaRue was an old hand at being in the trenches with a buyer, as she says a large portion of her clientele consists of first-timers. As such, she understood the difficulties Willis was encountering.

“Downpayments are always a struggle for first-time homebuyers,” LaRue says. “So is being able to pay for closing costs. Asking the seller to pay closing costs is tough when inventory is low because the people who can pay their own closing costs are getting the houses.”

Willis was also an inexperienced buyer, which only added to her stress, despite having a Realtor at her side.

“Buying your first home is like drinking from a firehose,” LaRue continues. “There are a lot of moving parts, and it can be overwhelming when you don’t know what to expect.”

LaRue knew what to expect and steered Willis away from the downtown area to a neighborhood closer to East Ridge – where she was listing a house for another friend.

Despite this stroke of beginner’s luck, Willis was initially unimpressed with the ranch dwelling. “I drove by and said, ‘Audrey, it’s trippin,’ I’m not gonna move here,’” Willis recalls with a laugh.

But when Willis later toured the interior of the home, she was sold. “It felt like it could be home,” she says.

The house was a long way from being her home, though, as Willis soon found herself embroiled in the bidding war LaRue had warned her was coming.

However, a number of things were working in Willis’ favor, including her financing. In addition to arranging for downpayment assistance through Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise, Willis was pre-approved for a mortgage through Movement Mortgage and First Volunteer.

Also, the appraisal came in lower than Willis’ initial offer, so the sellers dropped the asking price. Then, in a final flourish of Realtor magic, LaRue negotiated a higher price to convince the sellers to pay the closing costs.

“You don’t want to make your payments go up, but it sometimes makes more sense to go higher on the mortgage than fork over six grand in one lump sum,” LaRue explains. “People tend to think all they need to buy a house is the downpayment, but there are other expenses.”

In the end, LaRue’s personal relationship with the seller paid off and helped to produce a classic win-win scenario, with the seller making money and Willis getting her home – in less than 60 days.

Home sweet home

Willis still wakes up to the sound of her youngest thumping past her bedroom door, but now Bebe’s early morning scampering takes her from her own room to where she can find her sister sleeping in her own room.

Outside, the signs of home are everywhere – from the hammock hung between two towering Bradford Pears, to the swing on the front porch, to the barbecue grill in the backyard.

Willis and her daughters celebrated Bebe’s second birthday at a nearby pocket park, which was a nice spot for the water toys and a snowball stand. The following day, Willis’ brothers came to the house and “lounged around.”

One evening, as Willis sat on her porch swing watching fireflies dance above her front lawn, she thought about how she had not just bought a home, she had invested in her daughters’ future.

“This is Boom’s house,” she says. “I want to pay it off sooner rather than later and then move to another house and rent this one. This house will generate income Boom can use to build a savings or buy a car.

“I want her to start differently than I did.”

To achieve her new goal, Willis plans to continue to rely on Mann’s guidance. Now that she has a mortgage and her home is her only debt, she’ll be meeting with her friend and financial coach in the near future to reset her finances.

Mann says she could not be more thrilled for Willis. “It excites me when I give someone a strategy and it works. I enjoy seeing the fruit of my labor.”

Willis now hopes she serves as inspiration for other African Americans who want to become homeowners. She says she’s hearing more and more discussion among Blacks about owning a home, and she wants to encourage them to follow the path she took.

“You might think you can’t buy a house, but you can. You just need some direction.”